Q: I have two daughters. When one is doing something well, the other is unhappy. She reacts by either trying to out-win her sister, or she acts up by misbehaving. I know sibling rivalry is normal, but I think this goes beyond that and is really nasty jealousy. What can I do?
A: Sibling jealousy is the same as thing as sibling rivalry, and you don't need to worry if you take some simple measures to keep it in check. Jealousy amongst brothers and sisters happens mainly because a child fears losing his parent's love. In other words, when children display jealousy, it isn't about them, it's about YOU. Jealously is a normal emotion that all of us feel to some degree. Children, however, don't know how to tone down this emotion. So it's up to you, the parent, to help them cope.
You mentioned that when one child is good, the other either tries to 'one up her' or she misbehaves. This type of behaviour is typical of the sibling rivalry/jealousy pattern. The message your other daughter is really giving you is, "Notice me. Look at how great I am! I'm just as special as she is!" This daughter wants attention and at a sub-conscious level, she doesn't care if she gets you to notice her by either behaving better or worse than her sister. She just wants to make sure you notice her, and that her place in your heart is secure. She does not know she is doing this so telling her won't be of much help.
The answer to your concern lies with you. Begin by looking at your own behaviour. How do you react when this sort of jealously comes up? If you say something that discourages the poor or competitive behaviour, then that sends a signal to her that says, "You care more about her than me." While you may know that this is not true (all of your children are special), your child needs reassurances on a day to day basis that she is wonderful in her own way. Try and notice those things. Give her lots of attention in the areas that she has interest in, even if she's not a 'star' or 'champion'. Many parents make the mistake of not giving their child attention until they've done something exceptional. Instead, they should be encouraging their children in all aspects of their lives. So, a simple comment such as, "I like the way you enjoy playing the piano so much," or "You are really getting good at basketball" can be helpful. Don't wait until the jealous behaviour comes forward to make these comments. Instead watch for opportunities to encourage all the time. If a child is encouraged enough (and some need more than others), eventually the jealous behaviour will diminish. In other words, it may not go away completely, but things will improve.
I would also like to comment on a common mistake parents make when it comes to encouraging their child. Some believe that they are indeed 'encouraging parents,' but upon closer examination I find that they use this tool only sporadically. The reality is that children need to hear words of encouragement ALL the time. They need to hear from their young years, into their teen years and into their adult years. Yes, adult years! No matter the age, encouragement from a parent is very important.